Ever since news broke last week that Blackbird hired on celebrated pastry chef Dana Cree (Spago, Alinea, Poppy), people have been talking about what a coup it is for the Michelin-starred West Loop restaurant. What is it that makes Cree such a good get? Eater decided to go directly to the source and ask her.
Cree, who was moving to Chicago for a relationship, got a fortuitous message upon landing in town, literally. When the plane touched down, Cree booted up her phone and saw an email from celebrated New York pastry chef Michael Laiskonis (Le Bernardin) saying he wanted to pass her name along to a friend in Chicago. That friend happened to be Paul Kahan. The rest, as they say, is history.
You have quite an accomplished reputation. How did your experience at places like Noma, the Fat Duck and Alinea influence you?
The Fat Duck was so long ago, in 2005. I had come out of Seattle as a very young cook and worked at a very perfectionist minimalist restaurant, which taught me restraint. When I went to the Fat Duck, it blew my mind. Heston [Blumenthal] thought about food in such a different way. The place I had come from was pure craft. [Heston showed that] it's an interaction between food and people. You can create a notion on what color things should be, senses of nostalgia, historical food ideas. It's a human experience and that really blew my mind. A lot of the science behind it I found incredibly exciting, but not from a gimmicky standpoint. It was the first time I'd seen the science used in everyday things. What I left with from there was this sense of the diner and this idea that what molecular gastronomy meant to me was understanding food and ingredients a the molecular level and using the information to build your personal cuisine in a more creative manner. It just gives you a lot more control over the end result of your product. The Fat Duck was five years before Noma or Alinea. It was very early on. Noma is not a modern restaurant. It's like the pendulum swinging to the exact opposite cuisine. And Alinea is a little bit more of a technique-driven experience.
What about this job was appealing to you?
I had spent a lot of time in Seattle and it's a small community with very few pastry jobs in it. I was put into pastry positions early on in my career and you had full creative control. I had these working relationships in Seattle where I had been given complete autonomy, which I took for granted. I would be immersed in the company and be given all of this support right off the bat. When I left Seattle, I had it in my head that the next restaurant I went to it would be like that. They just weren't. It's not a bad thing. I spent some time bouncing around looking for a good fit and to broaden my skills. When I sat down with Paul [Kahan], I just got the idea finally that this was the next restaurant that would give me that support and that I wouldn't have to compromise with my personality. The only thing a pastry chef can hope for is to find that place where you can fit and not have to compromise and I found that at Blackbird.
How will [chef] David Posey's menu influence your desserts?
We've spent a lot of time together and hit it off right off the bat. We look at food and flavor in a similar fashion. Everything I've put up is a nice natural follow up [to his food]. We talk a lot and he tastes my dishes and I taste his.
How would you describe your style and technique?
The first place in Seattle I spent the first few years in savory and same with Fat Duck. When I started having creative control over a menu I quickly got bored with the standard creative process pastry chefs use. They take the base and then flavor exchange. Coming up savory that's the opposite of how you would create a dish. You take your flavor profile first and build a textural construct around the flavors. The dish [I'm working on now] is burnt artichoke, blackberry, sunflower seeds is the basic flavor profile we're working off of. Then we take those flavors and ask what texture complements the flavor best and build on that. We have a dish on the menu now — hay, burnt honey, blueberry and thyme — I created that last year in Denmark [at Kadeau] because I would drive through a hayfield on the way to the restaurant.
What else are you adding?
One big thing we did was change the cheese program completely and now we do a composed cheese course, which has been really fun. We've had a lot of diners curious about it because I don't think people have really been exposed to composed cheese courses.
Anything else you're excited about?
On thing that gets overlooked is that I'm also overhauling the menu for avec, which is done by Blackbird. I'm excited to get the chance to do some new stuff. There's an incredible amount of room for creativity. One of the first things we're going to do is borrow this little thing called stroopwafel, a flat yeasted waffle that's made on an iron. We'll use that textural format and use sweet olive oil bread, take that and put it into the stroopwafel and fill it with seasonal fruit compotes from the farmers market. You order dessert [at avec] because you want to prolong your experience, that emotional connection to the food and that you're really into your companion, so we're looking at low commitment things that may not use utensils. It's not about looking at a plate and thinking about the flavors, it's something you just want to nibble on.
Looking forward to checking out Cree's new dessert menu? Get a sneak peek of what's on it:
· Red Raspberry Sherbet -- buttermilk, black raspberries, green anise
· Blackberry -- burnt artichoke, oats, sunflower
· Milk Chocolate -- mesquite, hickory nuts, caramelized milk
· Bubblegum -- wild strawberries, banana, mochi
· Blueberries -- hay, burnt honey, thyme
· Andante Dairy 'Picolo' -- figs, black olive, spring onion
· Beecher's 'Flagsheep' -- strawberries, tomato, basil